So it's been a while...and I have a huge backlog of posts to make, all the way back to Thanksgiving[i]. However, since a couple pieces of pop culture had been bouncing around in my head, I thought I'd take a different tack than the usual top 10 of 2010 lists, and look at what surprised me, for better or worse, this year in the world of pop culture. Please note, given that I am 1) getting older, 2) not cool or hip, and 3) live in Texas, there are some items listed below which are from prior to 2010. This is just the year I got around to experiencing them.
The Better Than Expected:
Book – The Passage
TV – Survivors
Movie – Avalon
Music - Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs
However, there were some long expected or much hyped efforts that I just didn't connect with this year. These are a few of the standouts. They are not all necessarily BAD per se, just not what I expected.
Music – Sufjan Stevens, Age of Adz
I am a big Sufjan fan (as I know some of you are as well) so I tread lightly here. As much as I am enamored of Illinois and Michigan, I did not expect him to continue making States albums. I am completely OK with that. Nor did I expect him to continue making the same KIND of songs. I am always excited to hear an artist reinvent themselves, as long as it's a move forward. Unfortunately, Age of Adz just wasn't what I was looking for. It's not bad, per se. I appreciate Age of Adz. I like that it seems purposeful. But it does nothing for me. I've never had an album that I anticipated so much be so uniformly bland to me. And I really tried to like it. It feels disconnected, jangly, cacophonous. Like Sufjan got drunk and made an album with Animal Collective, and then they never bothered to edit the raw tracks. Again, it's not without artistry, but for me it's like a discussion I had with my sister about photography once long ago. I was looking through a catalog of shots she had, and there was one in which a photographer had essentially taken a black and white picture of a puddle in a field. Nothing great about it in technical terms (composition, etc), and nothing emotionally compelling about it. Our discussion centered around process (what the photographer had to do to get the shot) and result. I held that without a result that touches on something universal, the process is irrelevant to anyone but the artist. I feel this way about a lot of abstract art. You can tell me your series of three slightly different shades of red-colored circles represent war in Bosnia or man’s eternal quest for self-fulfillment, and use a lot of artistic jargon to describe it, but without some link, without some context, it's just three red circles, which are not complelling in and of themselves. The process, the artist's mental context is useless to anyone if the end result isn't compelling of it's own regard. At least that's always been my take on art. I don't need realism. But if it is something that doesn't appeal to something universal, I need it to be outstanding on its own, not to have to rely on context that isn't readily available. This is sort of how I feel about Adz. I'm sure there's some deep stuff going on there, but a lot of it is inaccessible to me.
Book – The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (WARNING, MILD SPOILERS.)
There is a reason most first novels don't do well. It often takes one or two out of the gate before an author has gotten past that initial experience and has the perspective to really control all aspects of a book. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle started out strong. It's a compelling story, and the writing is literature grade in places. I absolutely loved this book for the first eight to quarter of the book. Then things went downhill. It changed from a great character study of a family and a legacy into...well, it couldn't make up it mind what it wanted to be...it veered from a dip into a Marquez-esque magical realism oddness, to a Jean Craighead George style coming of age metaphoric solo journey story, but then abruptly back to a family tragedy, and then ended up being (SPOILER HERE.) a poorly rendered Shakespeare remake. I didn't know anything about the book before reading it. I didn't even read the dust jacket notes. So I was completely surprised when it ended up just being Hamlet. With Dogs. And Ophelia? A Dog. Who thinks and talks like a human. Yeah. What started out well paced and well written just descended into sheer chaos and hack authoring. It was an idea without a context. Or conversely, it was a horrible idea (again, Hamlet, with Dogs!) that occasionally broke free into some decent writing. (/SPOILER) I am willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt, but this book was a mess, and a pretty huge disappointment.
Movie – Black Swan
With all the hype built up around the movie, I expected more. I saw several much-hyped movies this year, but was generally entertained by most. Inception, for example, was blockbuster-y, but pretty decent overall, etc. But Black Swan...well, it just fell flat in pretty much every aspect. I had expected a tense psychological thriller, character driven and subtle....what I got was a poorly acted, gore-centered mess. Portman hasn't delivered a decent acting performance since “Beautiful Girls”. She remains the female Keanu Reeves...wooden, and with only three emotional settings [xi]. There is no character development, we are given a premise with nothing to back it up. We are expected to empathize with her and the tremendous pressure she's under, but we're never shown anything that would explain that pressure. We see some generic dancing segments, and a mother who's vaguely authoritarian, but nothing that gives an sort of external context for the emotional breakdown. Despite the best efforts of some really great supporting actors (Kunis notwithstanding), Portman's performance just can't be saved. Her character doesn't fall into madness so much as she makes an abrupt switch from sane-and-perky to crazy-stabby-psycho. There's no gradation. And it happens so early on, there's nowhere else to go with the performance. Kunis is likeable, but gives a Tom Cruise performance [xii], even in what must have been a risky girl on girl love scene decision (which is one of the only scenes that feels anything close to emotionally honest). The quick descent into madness is further hampered by an over-abundance of blood and gore [xiii]. What could have been a delicately handled psychological character study feels clumsy and underwhelming, and the suspense dies pretty early on.
TV – Tie – Glee/Battlestar Galactica/The Walking Dead
As much as I have lauded the quality of TV recently, there have been a couple shows that I have been pretty meh about. To some degree this is due to how many friends have absolutely raved about them. But even viewed as objectively as I could [xiv], I just couldn't figure out the level of appeal for Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, and Glee. What's odd is that, given my personal history and leanings, these should be instant wins. TV about show choir, dystopian science fiction, and zombies? Yes please. But each ended up being less than its potential in a way that just doesn't do it for me.
The Walking Dead –
[ii]Most of which make Anne Rice's per-conversion, touchy-feely male vampire-centered, wish-fulfillment stuff from a decade earlier look like enduring literature by comparison. Vampires should, in my book, be merciless killers, not angsty teens who are dehydrated because all the water that enters their body leaves through their eyes. As Tears. Glittery, glittery tears.
[iii]When I heard the author was young, and from Houston, I went back and mentally added several more lines over that write-off, and salted the earth such that I thought no interest would ever grow in that mental space.
[iv]Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Hilarious in concept, not so much in execution.
[v]75% of the “TV” I watch these days is via Hulu/Netflix/etc., rather than on an actual TV. It reminds me of the old conundrum...if you have a boat that slowly has pieces replaced over years and years, to the point at which there is no piece of the original boat left, is it still the same boat? If you no longer watch television program on televisions, is it still watching TV?
[vi]Even though we may have fond sentimental memories of shows from that era, go back and find an episode of something like the A-Team, or Airwolf, or any other favorite. Literally almost unwatchable. For a “don't ever do this again” warning, go watch any episode of “Full House”. If you can make it through it without wincing I owe you a beer.
[vii] Or maybe it's just that TV has gone to the extremes, with Jersey Shore confidently entrenched in the shallow end of the pool.
[viii]The “villain” in the early part of the series has the characters totally overwhelmed because he has...a gun. Just the one gun. As compared to their American counterparts, who would have a bristling armory of weaponry ready to shoot anything that moves about three minutes after the outbreak cleared, it never occurs to the lead characters that THEY TOO COULD GET SOME GUNS. It speaks volumes about our respective societies. Personally, on my “when the zombies rise” to do list, “loot nearest gun store” is pretty high up there. But then, I live in Texas, so I'd have some catching up to do in the gun ownership department.
[ix] It's not animated, but aspects of the storyline, dystopian atmosphere, characterization are very akin to some of the more “westernized” anime like Cowboy Bebop, which, despite its silly name, and well, Edward, is about as fantastic an animated series as I've encountered. (It's like a Japanese bladerunner, but cooler and with great jazz.)
[x]If the new Decemberists album had dropped in December instead of January, they might be up for this spot with their fantastic comeback after Hazards of Love. HoL was great for what it is...an epic rock opera, but it's not in touch with what people listen to or how people listen to it. In 1977 this would have been revolutionary, but now it's like a lot of abstract art to me....I appreciate its quality, I recognize its artistry, but it doesn't move me...it doesn't reach me. I don't mind working to appreciate something, but there has to be some return on investment. I don't have time to spend on things that will only ever yield a spartan, emotionless appreciation.
[xi]Which I suspect are controlled by a switch on her back. The difference being they have trade out the “Whoa..” setting on her model for “hysterical yet unbelievably unemotional weeping”. It's like watching a toaster cry. Natalie would fail the Turing Test.
[xii]In that she essentially plays herself regardless of the role. It's not so much Mila Kunis/Tom Cruise as character X in Movie Y, it's “Oh hey, Mila/Tom showed up while they were shooting a movie, and decided to be walk-ons”. You never believe them as a character because it's always them. People label actors who lose themselves in roles as “character actors” as if it was a diminutive form of “actor”. Personally, I think they've got the relationship reversed.
[xiii]This is the traditional path of the horror/thriller who gives away the thrill too soon. The scariest parts of monster movies are before you see the monster. The suspense and the fear of the unknown are always scarier than the actuality. Once you've shown the monster, the only place left to go is gore/shock.
[xiv]Which mostly consists of keeping MTV loaded up for the “previous channel” button, so I can use Jersey Shore as a baseline if I need to put it in context.
[xv]It was to be a TV series, and of the big budget comic book movies, only one or two have, in my opinion, been watchable or true to their origins.